Recently the Asbestos Safety & Eradication Agency (ASEA) completed a report based on an “Analysis of existing training materials used by organisations in the utilities sector”.  The report followed an investigation of asbestos training materials undertaken by the former OHS manager of the Australian Workers’ Union, Dr Yossi Berger.  Berger applied a specific list of criteria to the training materials which in many ways can be applied to all WHS training:

  • Accurate, effective and practical information, successfully communicated, complete and uncompromising
  • Teaching must go beyond the presentation of facts
  • Awareness that does not normalise risk
  • Development of emotional wisdom and protective unease
  • Fostering of an ability to query and withstand workplace pressures …
  • Historical examples of downplaying the serious health effects of exposure to asbestos
  • Precautionary principle
  • Emphases, demonstrations and explanations of safer work practices
  • Identification and use of correct tools and procedures
  • Knowledge of licencing and identification and communication of potential issues

The ASEA report found that asbestos training providers were quiet on the precautionary principle.  Asbestos is one of those materials that was used or installed in Australia decades ago so the handling of the material in construction is no longer a concern.   However, it occurs commonly in demolition – a process that already presents a high risk but is even a higher risk as it is a process that many want done quickly so it doesn’t impede whatever is being built on.  The focus in what is going to happen rather than what is happening at the moment.

asbestosIn terms of regular safety training the precautionary principle should receive move attention or is seen as more relevant because it prepares the student for avoiding hazards through job design, work task planning and resource management.

The report found that the criterion concerning fostering of an ability to query and withstand workplace pressures … was “least represented and almost completely absent across all reviewed materials”.

The report offered no reason for this absence yet the ability to question work practices and pressures is an essential element of the WHS obligation to consult and is often described as a workplace right to refuse work when one considers the task unsafe to perform.  

This absence is also strange given that the training materials are from an asbestos course and that awareness of the health risks of asbestos is generally high in the community.  Perhaps trainers relied on this high level of awareness to skip or downplay this unit.

A similar approach by the WHS trainers assessed may have applied to the poor representation of “historical examples of downplaying the serious health effects of exposure to asbestos”.  Given that Australia remains in the middle of projected span of asbestos-related disease fatalities it is important that the historical context of asbestos use be covered in asbestos training.  

The assumption that “everyone knows the risks of asbestos” is false given that Australia has a healthy rate of immigration with many coming from countries where WHS awareness is low.  Only a generation ago in Australia, asbestos was still being promoted as a suitable building material.  This is still the case in many countries and Australian asbestos training should be reiterating the seriousness and consequences of the mishandling of asbestos and asbestos-contaminated materials.

Part of the ASEA project was the development of a model unit of competency to “recognise and respond to asbestos risk in the utilities sector.  The unit of competency includes these four elements

  1. “Recognise asbestos hazards.
  2. Implement basic asbestos hazard controls.
  3. Contribute to an empowering safety culture.
  4. Comply with regulations and workplace procedures.”

The ASEA report found

  • “Elements 1, 2, 4 were addressed, to varying degrees, across most of the supplied training material.
  • Element 3 was rarely, if ever, addressed in the supplied material.”

The need to establish and maintain a “safety culture” has become a mantra for the WHS profession as it is accepted that a safety culture plays a crucial role in establishing a workplace where safety is advocated and that project and site managers display a commitment to WHS through appropriate leadership actions.

Trainers may have struggled with this element as even the WHS profession continues to argue about the existence of a “safety culture”.  However, the element is really a new way of discussing consultation, hazard assessment, safety management, investigation, preparation, resourcing and skill levels.  Perhaps the training element was rarely addressed because asbestos handling is often seen as a blue-collar activity where safety culture concerns more white-collar and supervisory activities.  Regardless, if the element exists in the unit of competency, it should be taught and to the best possible level.

The ASERA/Asbestos Awareness report concludes by acknowledging “…there is some great material being used” but also states that there are “some significant holes” in the training materials.  Holes in any WHS training material is of great concern but when training is on an issue like asbestos, such concerns should be very high.  As the Government continues to review asbestos training, it is time for employers and employees to not simply choose a training provider on trust but to inquire further about the trainer’s competency and whether the training materials being used are the best they can be.  Safety training should never be a waste of money and should always decrease workplace risks.

 

For more details on AlertForce’s nationally recognised Asbestos Removal courses, go to http://alertforce.com.au/ohs-training-courses/asbestos-awareness/